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I have been reading and finding out about systems stuff for ages.  Going way back – maybe I’ll cover that one day.  Now I am part way through a postgraduate diploma in Systems Practice with the Open University.  This blog is adapted from a post I did to the student forum early in the first module….

In the beginning, we did lots of reading (interspersed with the odd ‘practice’ activity that you can get away with doing half-heartedly). The reading was interesting and I learned a lot about what systems thinking is; how it applies to strategy making; the lives and works of key historic thinkers; the importance of tools and so on.

Then the first assignment came along and told us to do systems thinking for real – or at least practice it.

A metaphor about swimming comes to mind. Most people can explain a little about the theory behind swimming and the fact you have to move your arms and legs to stay afloat. I am sure some physical scientists could do lots of detailed explanations using Archimedes etc. All this is knowing about swimming.

But eventually you have to get in the swimming pool. You have to practice and see if you are any good at it. Some people try and never learn. Others take to it quite naturally and love it. Others learn but never feel quite at home in the water and prefer to avoid it.

So my trepidation as I headed towards my first assignment was “will I take to this as a duck to water?” or “will I be clumsy and flail around a little”; or “what if after all this time of knowing about systems thinking and being so interested in it I sink”. (that swimming metaphor is now completely worn out!)

When I thought of this metaphor I remembered something from Open University’s B823 Managing knowledge which I studied a while back. I’ve managed to find the reference I was thinking of in the B823 course reader. Quinn, Anderson and Finkelstein* talked about four different levels of professional intellect.

The first level is “cognitive knowledge (or know-what) [which] is the basic mastery that professionals achieve through extensive training and certification” (p.335)

That is the knowing about stuff I have been doing so far…not just on the course but all the reading that developed my interest in systems practice.

The second level is “advanced skills (or know-how) [which] translates ‘book learning’ into effective execution. The ability to apply the rules of a discipline to real-world problems …”(p.336)

The assignments and activities seem to help me to apply systems thinking.

After I found my ‘know-what’ and ‘know-how’ quotes in the Quinn et al reference in the B823 course reader. I read a little further – remember I said there were 4 levels of intellect?

Well, the third level is “systems understanding (know-why)..deep knowledge of the web of cause-and-effect relationships underlying a discipline. It permits professionals to move beyond the execution of tasks to solve larger and more complex problems – and to create extra-ordinary value. Professionals with know-why can anticipate subtle interactions and unintended consequences” (p336)

This is an interesting one – learning to be a systems practitioner can take me to a new level in my own discipline (public sector management applied to health and wellbeing).

Just in case you are hanging on for the end of Quinn et al’s theory. The fourth level is

“self-motivated creativity (care-why) consists of will, motivation and adaptability for success….Without self-motivated creativity,..leaders can lose their knowledge advantage through complacency” (p336)

…sounds a bit like reflective practice to me.

*Quinn, JB, Anderson, P, and Finkelstein, S “Managing Professional Intellect: Making the most of the best” in Little S, Quintas P and Ray T (2002) “Managing Knowledge: an essential reader”, Open University/Sage Publications, London [pp 335 – 348]

It is actually reprinted from Harvard Business Review March/April 1996.


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